Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Revisiting the Structure of Refugee and IDP Camps

Ishita Dey
Jim Lewis in an article on refugee camps in New York Times Magazine analyses the possible reasons behind the basic structures of camps: tarp, tent, cluster, grid. He argues that one of the basic tenets behind this kind of camp architecture is based on an assumption that these structures are temporary and one of the ways to discourage people from settling there is to create such structures of discomfort. Though the official position is that repatriation is imminent, there are scores of instances to ponder and reflect on the fact that the refugee crisis in West Bank and Gaza, Northwestern Province of Pakistan and Kenya. It’s been sixty years of the Palestinian settlements in west Bank and Gaza. Thousands of Afghans are stranded in the Northwestern Province of Pakistan since Soviet invasion in 70s and Sudanese and Somalians have been forced to live in Kenya since 1992. To quote Jim Lewis, “In 1993, a refugee could expect to live in a camp for 9 years; by 2004, that had grown to 17 years — almost a year increase per year, which suggests that very few people are going home at all. As conflicts grow more protracted and complicated, quick and direct repatriation becomes a slimmer and slimmer thread to hang things on”. It is against this backdrop and context he feels that the humanitarian agencies should revisit the structure of the settlements along with other needs. The institutions responsible for the lives and movements of great number of people are organized along rectilinear lines like hospitals, prison and army barracks and so on. The author feels that the basic structure of the tarp is based on Western notions of family as a nuclear unit. Similarly the grid structure might not be acceptable for cultures that are organized along fluid lines. While the UN Refugee Commission does not lay down a template to follow; their basic idea is the safety of the refugees. After the basic settlement the camp dwellers are encouraged to modify these spaces. According to Lewis, Fred Cuny contributed to the practice of emergency aid in the late 60s and argued for the use of single-family tents arranged in an ersatz-village design that was more comfortable and more flexible. It was instrumental in reducing the spread of infectious diseases in camps. Cuny recommended single-family tents he assumed that most of the people were from the villages, whereas our experience of refugees in war in Iraq has led to refugees seeking urban refuge. Lewis believes that there is a new tide of urban migration and he sites the case of Manila where 80,000 people are living on a top of garbage dump. Lewis points out that there is a history of architects committed to the welfare of the people. Some of the renowned architects are “Hassan Fathy, a Cairene architect who, starting in the 1930s, trained the poor of Egypt to build homes from mud bricks; Buckminster Fuller, with his geodesic domes; and Habitat for Humanity. There are pockets of inspired practice, like Architecture for Humanity, a remarkable N.G.O. based in San Francisco that not only builds and consults but also acts as a sort of clearinghouse for open-source design. Along the Mexican-U.S. border, Teddy Cruz has fashioned fast, cheap and inventive housing out of salvaged materials. Jaime Lerner, a Brazilian architect who became mayor of Curitiba, helped transform it from a slum-infested metropolis of almost two million into a green and functioning model of urban planning”.

While most humanitarian agencies argue that the local community knowledge will play a key role in solving problems related to shelter, the urban planners need to address certain problems that the large body of UN might face. First and foremost cheap housing solutions, materials that easily available and transportable and durable to survive extreme weather conditions and easily reparable. In terms of security, water access, H.I.V./AIDS prevention, human rights issues make the problem more complex. Despite these problems, Lewis argues urban planners and humanitarian agencies should work on an alternative models of housing based on local knowledge.

To read the full article please click on the link given below: -

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